slow literature

From Archipelago, March 2003:

“They Stand Accused”: James L. Hicks’s Investigations in Sumner, Mississippi, September 1955

From The Lynching of Emmett Till, A Documentary Narrative

Christopher Metress

 

Foreword

by Christopher Mettress

On September 24, 1955, an all-white Mississippi jury, after a mere sixty-seven minutes of deliberation, acquitted J.W. Milam and Roy Bryant of the murder of Emmett Till. Till, a fourteen year-old black boy from Chicago, had been visiting for the first time his extended family in the Mississippi Delta. One afternoon, barely a week into his visit, he and several other youths were standing outside a white-owned grocery in the small hamlet of Money. Apparently, Till had been boasting of his friendships with white people up North — in particular his friendships with white girls — and the local kids, looking to call his bluff, dared him to enter the store and flirt with Carolyn Bryant, the white woman and former beauty queen who was working the cash register. Till entered the store, and what he did next is unclear. Some say he “wolf whistled” at Bryant; others say he grabbed her hand and asked her for a date; still others claim he did nothing more than simply say “bye, baby” to her as he left the store. Whatever Till did, it was apparent to all involved that he had done something that made Carolyn Bryant angry or afraid. Till’s friends rushed him away from the store as Bryant went to her car to get a gun.

For three days, nothing more happened, and then Roy Bryant — Carolyn’s husband — and J.W. Milam — Roy Bryant’s step-brother — struck out in the dead of night in search of young Till. They found him where they thought he’d be at two in the morning: asleep in the modest cabin of Mose Wright, his great-uncle. The two men, demanding to see the boy “who’d done the talking,” took Till forcibly from the house, and his family never saw him alive again. The next morning, at their behest, the local sheriff searched the county, and when he could not find any trace of Till he questioned and eventually arrested Milam and Bryant on kidnapping charges. When Till’s bloated and disfigured corpse surfaced three days later downstream in the Tallahatchie River, Milam and Bryant were quickly re-arrested, this time for murder.

In the weeks leading up to the trial, media coverage was enormous. Influential African American weeklies like the Chicago Defender, the Pittsburgh Courier, the New York Amsterdam News, and the Baltimore Afro-American all published loud denunciations of southern injustice and threatened to exert political and economic pressure should Mississippi fail to give Till’s case a fair hearing. In response, southern white papers, led by the conservative Jackson Daily News and the more moderate Memphis Commercial Appeal, insisted that justice would be done and that continued threats from the “liberal press” would threaten rather than secure justice in the case. Eventually, more than seventy newspapers and magazines sent reporters to the trial, and when, against all reasonable evidence, the jury failed to convict Milam and Bryant, the denunciations were swift and strong. While apologist papers in the South argued that justice had had its day in court, African American newspapers and magazines, joined by a chorus of support from the northern white press and liberal political organizations, called for national protests and boycotts.

According to many reporters in attendance, the judicial process had failed Emmett Till, and the real question to come out of the whole trial was whether, without federal intervention, blacks could get justice in Mississippi. For another set of dissenters, however, the trial raised a different set of questions, many of them concerned with the truths of the case. Despite the best efforts of the prosecuting attorneys, the trial seemed to hide more truths than it answered as many competing testimonies were never fully explored or cross-examined. For instance, what really had happened that afternoon in the Bryant grocery? Moreover, how did Milam and Bryant find out about the alleged transgression? Who else besides Milam and Bryant drove out to Mose Wright’s cabin that night, and who were the other men spotted with Milam at the barn the next morning? Were there really black men in Milam’s pickup that evening? If so, who were they and what had happened to them? Finally, how long did Emmett Till remain alive that night, and exactly when, where, why and how did his murder take place? A handful of investigative reporters understood that the trial did not answer these questions fully and that the truth, more likely than not, had been obscured by the proceedings.

Among the investigative reporters at the trial, none played a more significant role than James L. Hicks. Hicks began his career as a reporter for the Cleveland Call and Post in 1935 and later moved on to the Baltimore Afro-American. As one of the premier investigative journalists of his generation, Hicks was also the Washington, D.C. bureau chief for the National Negro Press Association, which served more than one hundred newspapers. In 1955, he became executive director of the New York Amsterdam News, a position he would hold for the good part of twenty years. As the first black member of the State Department Correspondents Association and the first black reporter cleared to cover the United Nations, Hicks was truly a pioneer in the field. His coverage of the Till trial ran in dozens of African-American newspapers, and in the following piece of investigative journalism — which ran in four installments in October 1955 — he tells about the role he played in discovering the existence of “missing witnesses” to the murder. Hicks’s work in this area actually forced a trial recess on Tuesday, September 20, as the prosecution called for time to track down these newly discovered witnesses. In this series of articles — which ran in the Baltimore Afro-American, the Cleveland Call and Post and the Atlanta Daily World — Hicks argues that the forces of law in Mississippi conspired to prevent the full evidence of Milam and Bryant’s guilt from surfacing at the trial. The version reprinted here draws its structure from the installments published in the Cleveland Call and Post, which presented the most condensed rendering of Hicks’s articles. Passages omitted from the Cleveland Call and Post articles, but included in some form or other in either the Atlanta Daily World or the Baltimore Afro-American, have been inserted throughout and marked by the addition of brackets.

 

“They Stand Accused by C-P Reporter: Jimmy Hicks Charges Mss. Officials Aided Lynchers”

James L. Hicks, Cleveland Call and Post, October 8, 1955

New York, N.Y. — Here for the first time is the true story of what happened in the hectic five-day trial of two white men in Sumner, Mississippi, for the murder of 14-year-old Emmett Till of Chicago.

This story has never been written before. I did not write it in Mississippi for fear of bodily harm to myself, and to my colleagues.

No one else has written it because no one else in the capacity of a reporter lived as close to it as I did.

Looking back on it now, I am ashamed that I did not throw caution to the winds and at least try to get out the story exactly as it was unfolding to me. I’m convinced, however, that if I had tried this, I would not be here in New York to write this.

I should like also to add that not once in the stories that I did file from Sumner did I tell a lie. The offense, if I committed one, lies in the fact that the stories that I did file did not dig or go far enough into the truth. It just wasn’t safe to do so.]

Here in the safety of New York I now charge (as I would have charged in Sumner, Mississippi) that:

Sheriff H. C. Strider frustrated the ends of justice by refusing to take an impartial person to the Charleston jail at Charleston, Miss., and permit them to check on his report that Leroy “Too Tight” Collins [was] not in the Charleston jail.

I further charge, and with the protection of proper law officials will go back to Mississippi and help prove, that Leroy Collins was in the Charleston jail on Friday at the very hour that the case went to the jury.

I charge further that Prosecutors Gerald Chatham and Robert B. Smith were told about this but that they decided that since the sheriff had given his word that Collins was not in the jail, they proceeded to close out the trial without this man whom everyone believes could have positively hung the crime on the two white men and seriously implicated at least one other white man.

I finally charge that if Leroy Collins is brought forward at this date and given all opportunity to talk where he is assured that he is not in any danger, he will be able to tell where Henry Lee Loggins is and that the two of them will prove to be the two colored men who were seen on the truck the night of the murder by Moses Wright and Willie Reed.

 

Knew Too Much

I believe that Henry Lee Loggins is dead and that he was disposed of because he knew too much about the case.

These are serious charges. But I welcome this opportunity to write down the evidence on which they are based.

This is the fantastic story as lived by this reporter:

 

Attended Funeral

On the Sunday before the opening of the trial I attended the funeral of “Kid” Townsend, a well[-]liked colored man who has lived in Sumner virtually all his life.

I had been told that a number of white people would attend the funeral and I felt that it would provide at least good pre-trial story for my paper.

[I drove into the churchyard, got out with my notebook in my hand and went into the church passing a number of colored people standing in the churchyard.

[Inside I found the church crowded with no seats and that white people were occupying the two rows on the left side of the church.

[The temperature was about 95 degrees and I decided to stand outside the church and listen to the services after I had been in the church about a half hour. This was easy to do because the church was the typical white-washed wooden structure and the minister who preached was shouting loud enough to be heard from outside.

[My notes, which I shall constantly refer to in this article, show that the preacher’s name was the Rev. W. M. King, that there were 175 colored people in the church and 12 whites including five women, four men, and three white children.

[My notes also show that I recorded the sermon as being from “Fourth Chapter, Second Timothy,” and beneath I have a quotation read by the minister which said, “I have fought the good fight. I have kept the faith. I have finished my course.”]

I was leaning there against the fender of a parked car when a voice behind me said, “Are you down here for the trial?”

Up to this point I did not know a single colored person in Sumner and I had tried in the two days I’d been there from spreading around that I was a reporter.

But as I turned to the voice I decided that it would get out anyway[,] so I turned to the man who addressed me and said, “Yes, I am down on the trial. I’m a reporter.”

The man was colored and he said to me, “There’s a lady behind this car who would like to talk with you. I think you’d be interested in what she has to say.”

[I turned and looked but saw no one. At that moment the man said, “Go behind the car, but don’t take out your notebook and write down nothing.”

[Now at this point I should like to say to the reader, if this whole thing starts off reading like a cheap and fantastic Hollywood movie script, that is exactly what it is going to read like for the entire five days.

[But I can say also that every word of it is true and it is written exactly the way I lived it.]

I went back of that car and found a woman whom I shall not describe[,] for she told me in the beginning that she was actually endangering her life by talking to me about the trial.

 

Woman Gives Tip

The woman then told me that a young boy named “Too Tight” was in the truck the night of the murder and that he had suddenly disappeared and no one knew where he was.

She said she did not know “Too Tight’s” real name but that she thought she could send me to a place to get all the information I wanted on him “if you aren’t afraid to go.”

I told her I was not afraid. Then standing and looking off in another direction she said to me[, ”]Go to Glendora. That’s about seven miles south of here. Be careful and don’t let the people know what you are looking for. Don’t talk to any white people.

“Go to a place called King’s. It’s the only colored dance hall in town. Hang around there and find the right people. They will tell you ‘Too Tight’s’ name and what happened to him. But don’t,[“] she said, “get caught down there after dark.”

Then she walked away from the car.

[As he walked away I looked at my watch. It was three o’clock. I reasoned that with any good luck I could drive down there in 20 minutes and spend an hour or so in town and still make it back to my hotel in Mound Bayou by dark.]

So I got in the car and headed immediately for Glendora.

The tavern called King’s was easy to find. I just looked for a large group of colored people on a back street and there was King’s.

 

King’s Tavern

It was a typical hangout in a typical Mississippi town. The place was filthy and the cotton pickers who were enjoying their Sunday off crowded it to the doors.

At one end of the long hall was what served as a kitchen. Somewhere within the bowels of the place a jukebox was giving out with Rock and Roll blues and in the center of the floor couples were dancing attired in all kinds of clothing. Some of the young women up to 25 years old were dancing barefooted.

[I stood for a long time trying to “case” the place. I had not had a meal since my Mound Bayou breakfast that morning at seven and I was hungry. But I realized that I only had about a good hour to work in before dark and I wanted to get the most out of my time by circulating through the crowd instead of tying myself to an eating table.

[So I elected to spend my hour or so drinking beer and dancing to see what I could find. I walked over to the kitchen and foolishly asked for a “menu.”

[That was a dead giveaway for a stranger and I realized it now. But at the time the words seemed to slip out of my mouth. It seemed that at the time I felt that if I had some reading matter in my hand I could stall a little but until I made up my mind as to what approach to make.]

 

Spotted As Stranger

When I asked a girl waitress for a menu, a man behind the counter spoke up and said, “We don’t have any menu. But we can fix you most anything you want.” Then he asked the question I knew was coming.

“Where you from?”

You simply can’t escape it in the South. They can spot a stranger a mile away.

I could tell by the authoritative way the man spoke that he must be the owner or manager of the joint, so I answered, “Oh, I’m from up the way a bit” and gradually I drew him into conversation.

After trying to convince him I was merely a drifting guy who had dropped in his place for a beer or two –– and convincing myself that I hadn’t convinced him of anything –– I came at him right down the middle:

“Whatever happened to my boy ‘Too Tight’,” I said?

The man stopped as if I had hit him in the face. I looked over to my right and some men seated at a table playing “Georgia Skin” dropped their cards and turned to look at me at the mention of the name “Too Tight.”

 

Looking for “Too Tight”

I knew then that I was on the trail of something big.

But I also knew that the man to whom I was talking would not talk to me in the hearing distance of the others[,] so I grabbed him by his arm and moved over in a direction away from the “Skinners” and nearer the kitchen all the while saying “Let’s have a beer.”

He said nothing until he got me a beer. Then he moved over to me and said, “What do you want with ‘Too Tight’[?]”

I told him “Too Tight” was a friend of mine. That we used to gamble together and that I was in his town and decided to look him up.

He looked around and said, “‘Too Tight’ is in jail.”

“In jail,” I said. “What have they got Too Tight in jail for? He never bothered anybody.”

The man looked at me and said, “See that chick over there,” pointing to a girl seated near the wall. “She can tell you about ‘Too Tight’.”

While I drank my beer, I stood there trying to figure how to best approach the girl who had the key to what I was looking for. She was seated with a big husky guy and the last thing I wanted to do was to become involved with a man for “molesting” his girl friend.

But all around me I noticed that when the other men wanted to dance they didn’t ask the women for a dance. They just walk up, grab the woman by the arm and start dancing.

I felt my time was running out and I decided to try the bold approach. So I walked over to where she was seated, grabber her by the hand and said, “Let’s dance.”

She was up on her feet in a flash and I swirled her out in the middle of the floor into the crowd as fast as I could[,] hoping that the big guy at the table wasn’t mad at me.

 

He’s in Jail

She spoke first. And her questions were the usual. “Where are you from?” I told here that I was from up in Sumner and I was looking for my friend “Too Tight.”

“Too Tight? she said[.] “He’s in jail.”

I expressed surprised. “In jail for what” I said. “I don’t know,” she answered. “They came and for him Monday a week ago.”

I let fly then with a barrage of questions[,] determined to get them all in before the dance was over and the big guy came to claim her. I asked her if she had been to see him in hail. She said no.

“You mean to tell me,” I said[,] “that your boyfriend has been in jail a week and you haven’t been to see him?”

She said[,] “‘Too Tight’ isn’t my boy friend. He lived with us.”

I asked her who was “Us” and she said[,] “Me and my husband.”

[“]Is that your husband over at the table?” I asked. “No,” she answered. “He’s in jail, too.”

“What did they get him for?” I asked. “I don’t know,” she said. [“]Both of them worked for one of those white men who killed that boy from Chicago and they came and got both of them.”

I then asked her what jail they were in and if she had been to see her husband. She said she had not –– that she had been even afraid to talk about it to anyone.

I asked her what her name was. She told me. I then asked what her husband’s name was. She said “Henry Lee Loggins.”

Since the name she gave me did not have Loggins for a last name, I said to her, “I thought you said your name was so and so. Now you tell me your husband’s name is Loggins.”

“We’re not married,” she said. “We just lived together.”

Then I asked her what to me was the $64 question in Glendora. “What,” I said, “is Too Tight’s real name? I’ve known him a long time but all I know is Too Tight.”

 

Gives Mystery Name

She came right down the middle. “His real name is Leroy Collins[,]” she said.

She then told me that Too Tight lived with his grandfather on the Aklet farm near Glendora (about a mile and a half away) but that he stayed in town so much that he had just started living with her and her “husband.”

I then tried to get real chummy with her. I complimented her on her dancing and her hair and I asked her if I could come back down to Glendora and take her out. Then for the first time I noticed that she was barefooted.

“We’ll go to the jail first and see your husband,” I said, “and then we can go out and have a few drinks.”

She said that would be all right if I got back before ten o’clock that night. I told her then that I didn’t mean that I was coming back that same night but that I had planned to come down and pick her up the next day.

 

Fears Beating

“I can’t do that,” she said. “I’ll be picking cotton all during the day next week.”

I told her that we couldn’t get into the jail at night and that I’d pay her what she would make picking cotton if she would stay home from work the next day and go to the jail with me.

“I’d like to do it”, she said[.] “But I’d get a beating.”

I asked her who would beat her and she said that the white man for whom she worked came around and whipped everyone who didn’t go out into the cotton fields and pick his cotton. “Even if they are sick, he whips them,” she said.

I asked her to come with me while I ate something and she readily consented[,] completely ignoring the big guy at the table where she had been seated. I then found that the menu which was unwritten consisted of chitterlings or beef stew.

I ordered beef stew and sat down with her at a table. As hungry as I was, I couldn’t go for the stew[,] so I pushed it away and told her I was about ready to leave. She then showed me where she lived and I promised to come back to Glendora some night. I never went back.

Things simply got too hot.

 

Read the rest of Hicks’s dispatches about the trial, continued on Archipelago, Vol. 6, No. 1.